Faculty Focus


Using Grading Policies to Promote Learning

I just finished putting together some materials on grading policies for a series of Magna 20-Minute Mentor programs, and I am left with several important take-aways on the powerful role of grading policies. I’m not talking here about the grades themselves, but instead the policies we choose as teachers.

We take our grading responsibilities seriously, although most of us wouldn’t rank grading among our favorite teaching tasks. Grades matter—to students, their parents, those who award scholarships, employers, and graduate and professional schools. Who doesn’t think they’re important? But our focus is on the grades, not the policies that govern what’s graded, how much a certain activity counts, or those mechanisms used to calculate the grades.

When students talk about the grades we’ve “given” them, we are quick to point out that we don’t “give” grades, students “earn” them. And that’s correct. It’s what the student does that determines the grade. But that statement sort of implies that we don’t have much of a role in the process—that we’re simply executing what the grading policy prescribes. We shouldn’t let that response cloud our thinking. Who sets up the course grading policy? Who controls it? Who has the power to change it or to refuse to change it? It’s these policies that involve us up to our eyeballs.

Humphreys and Pollio write of grading, “Nowhere is the power that resides in the hands of faculty so apparent, or so open to abuse.” (p. 96) We all aspire to be fair and objective in our assessment of student work, but there’s so much to grade. We grade when we’re tired and when we know whose work we’re evaluating, and we don’t stop being human when we’re grading. Good grading policies have features that promote fair and objective assessment of student learning. The criteria that differentiate the grade levels should be clear and relevant to the goals we have set for that test or assignment. Whether it is checklists or rubrics, we need to use them religiously in the grading process, and I think they’re rightfully and profitably shared with students, ideally before they start work on an assignment rather than once their work has been graded.

I also hadn’t thought very thoroughly about how grading policies affect learning. What counts (papers, quizzes, tests, projects, participation, attendance, etc.) and how much it counts directs what students do in a course. The more an assignment counts, the harder students work on it. Yes, I know, we all have students who don’t work on the tests and assignments worth the most, but for those students who are trying to succeed in the course, what counts and how much it counts directs where they focus their efforts, and that in large measure determines both what and how they learn.

Can grading policies motivate learning? Too often they motivate getting the grade, not necessarily the learning. Diane Pike, a sociology professor, objects to our overly detailed point systems that place a value on even the smallest activities. That ends up being a grading policy feature that reinforces the notion that unless there are points in play, the activity isn’t worth doing. Detailed point systems also encourage grade grubbing—students in relentless pursuit of every possible point.

We have professional responsibilities to certify the extent to which students have mastered content, but we also have students do assignments and take tests because those activities promote learning. Students work with the content to complete an assignment. They study the material to prepare for exams. And our grading policies set the parameters within which that learning occurs.

Are there grading policy features that promote learning? What about the chance to use teacher, maybe peer, feedback to improve an assignment before it gets a final grade? Or extra credit possibilities that allow a student to dig deeper into an aspect of course content that seems interesting? Or credit for course engagement, as in regularly attending class and being there prepared, actively participating in group activities, meeting deadlines, and listening attentively to others?

I’m just suggesting possibilities here, which is to say, I’m still exploring ways to craft grading policies that enhance the fair and objective assessment of student learning at the same time they motivate learning. As we face a new academic year and are assembling course syllabi, it’s good to review grading policies, freshly appreciating their powerful role.

Pollio, H. R. and Humphreys, W. L. Grading students in J. H. McMillian, ed., Assessing Student Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 33. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988.

Pike, D. L. (2011). The tyranny of dead ideas in teaching and learning: Midwest Sociological Society Presidential Address 2010. The Sociological Quarterly, 52, 1-12.

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